In October 2015, I saw a post on the Young Survival Coalition (YSC) Facebook page about a show called “Skin Wars.” YSC is an organization that supported me after my breast cancer diagnosis. They were working with Skin Wars to reach young breast cancer survivors for an upcoming episode. I had never heard of the show, but when I learned it was about body painting, I was interested. Body painting was on my “bucket list.”
I submitted my info to YSC and got a call from the show. Upon learning I would be required to stand nearly naked on national television while being painted from head to toe, I had second thoughts! However, October was the month of my 19th Cancerversary as a two-time breast cancer survivor and this looked like a fantastic way to celebrate being alive.
I haven’t been naked in front of anyone for years. I’ve been a single mom of four kids since 2008 and I rarely date. Without clothes on, I look like the patchwork doll from Nightmare Before Christmas. I have scars everywhere from my nearly 20 surgeries since my first breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 33. My second diagnosis was just a year after my first treatment ended. I also found out that I carry the BRCA2 gene mutation.
I am butchered from my neck to my rear and under both arms, having had both breasts removed and reconstructed. My gluteal flap reconstruction in 1995 nearly killed me. My back is scarred from a partial latissimus flap and a melanoma removal. My right breast is missing a nipple and is indented and shaped oddly. It is also quite a bit smaller than my left breast. I feel ok in clothes, even in workout bras and bathing suits. But I don’t feel good at all about myself when I am naked. I refuse to look in a mirror and get dressed in the morning as quickly as possible. My body image certainly gets in the way of me wanting to date. In a world of perfect, airbrushed women, where do I belong?
I talked to my kids about doing the show. I have a 10-year-old son, two 14-year-old daughters and a 22-year-old daughter. My three younger kids are adopted, as breast cancer not only took my breasts and my hair, but it also took my fertility. My girls are just 13 days apart and raised like twins. My oldest (my only biological child) found out at the young age of 19 that she, too, carries the BRCA2 gene mutation.
My kids were all for me doing the show, so I went way out of my comfort zone and said yes. I was the oldest breast cancer survivor model on the show, at age 52, and the only mom. My assigned painter was also the oldest on the show and the only mom, so we were meant to be a team!
Once on the studio lot, we were asked to change into black leggings and pasties for the upper body painting. I was terrified, as I looked around the room at the other girls, who were all younger, thinner and prettier. But this was a great group and we bonded quickly. We were all diagnosed with cancer at a young age, and all doing something out of my comfort zone.
There were five body painters, including a few men. Again, I was terrified. I hadn’t had a guy look at me or touch me in years. Thank goodness I was paired up with one of the female painters, and then the work began. I decided that I would not look around to see what anyone else looked like as they were being painted and I would not catch a glimpse of myself, either.
When the time was up, my painter picked up a mirror and showed me her creation. It was at this moment that I understood the expression “It took my breath away.” Seeing myself look so beautiful without clothes literally took my breath away – and then the tears started to flow. I looked at the other young survivors, each with a part of their story painted on their beautiful bodies.
Next came the full body challenge. We got into our undies and pasties and headed down in our pink robes. For this challenge, our painters listened to our stories and then painted them on our bodies – head to toe and front and back. Again, I was in complete shock at what an amazing job my painter did. I looked beautiful, like a princess warrior! My story was there for all to see – my BRCA gene mutation, my kids, my breast cancer 60-mile walks (I have completed 14), my Pink Wings (I have a website called Pinkwings.com and my teammates, family and I wear Pink Wings on all my Cancer Awareness walks).
To say this experience was amazing is an understatement. It changed my life, the way that I feel about myself. I wish there was a way for every survivor to have this opportunity. I have never felt so beautiful and powerful in my life….and to think I did it NAKED!
My advice to those who are dealing with body image concerns is to take time to let your body heal after the torture it has been through with breast cancer. Then take chances, do something out of your comfort zone, and get out of your own way, as it is the only thing stopping you from seizing the day! I feel more confident and definitely more empowered after my appearance on Skin Wars. Pushing myself outside my comfort zone gave me new perspective, and I wish the same for every young survivor.
Interested in watching? Set up a Viewing Party at home or a local spot so you and your friends can celebrate these amazing young women as they share their survivor story with the world through amazing body art. While you’re watching, you can also join the Skin Wars’ new interactive play-at-home game: www.playskinwars.com!
You can tune into this very special breast cancer awareness episode of GSN’s Skin Wars on Wednesday, June 8 on GSN at 9pm ET/PT (8pm Central). The episode features five young breast cancer survivors, including Courtney, who will share their stories that are translated into art by the talented body painters who are competing on the series for a $100,000 grand prize. The episode will feature two body painting competitions that will showcase the compelling story of each young survivor. Skin Wars is also donating $10,000 to the Young Survival Coalition in honor of these brave models.